In the fall of 2007, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) became the first university in the nation to offer a bachelor's degree program in the emerging field of robotics engineering (RBE). The university's groundbreaking program is now also the first in the nation to receive accreditation from ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), the organization that accredits engineering programs nationwide. The action, announced last month, is retroactive to October 2009.
"WPI took the lead four years ago to establish the first undergraduate program specifically designed to prepare a new breed of engineers with the cross-disciplinary skills and the business savvy needed to drive the emerging robotics industry," said WPI Provost Eric Overström. "As the pioneering program in the field, our robotics engineering major was carefully crafted to produce graduates who can design the next generation of robotics systems, advance the science and technology behind robots and autonomous machines, and found and lead tomorrow's robotics ventures."
WPI's groundbreaking undergraduate program, which culminates in the degree of bachelor of science, was created through the cooperation of faculty members from the departments of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Content from the three departments was integrated and new robotics engineering courses were developed to create a cutting-edge program that prepares students for this rapidly growing field.
"By its nature, robotics engineering is highly interdisciplinary because robots consist of electrical and mechanical systems, including motors, servos, cameras, and other actuators and sensors, controlled by sophisticated algorithms and computational technology," said Michael Gennert, professor of computer science and director of WPI's robotics engineering program. "When we designed our program, we wanted to assure that students had a firm grounding in all of these areas, along with exposure to business and entrepreneurship."
From the start, the undergraduate robotics engineering program has generated considerable student interest and enthusiasm. In fact, in just four years, the program has grown to become one of the university's ten most popular undergraduate majors. Since the program was launched, WPI has also inaugurated graduate programs in robotics engineering leading to the master of science and the PhD, making the university the only one in the nation with bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs in the field.
In addition to building its academic offerings in robotics engineering, the university has expanded its educational and research capabilities in robotics engineering, adding new tenure-track faculty members with expertise in such areas as surgical robots, human-robot interactions, robot learning, navigation, and manipulation, and intelligent mechatronic and embedded systems; developed new laboratory and teaching spaces to support the degree programs; and built a Robotics Engineering Advisory Board with representatives from some of the nation's leading robotics companies.
WPI also continues to broaden its commitment to pre-college outreach programs that build excitement for robotics and other STEM (science, technology, mathematics, and engineering) fields. For example, the university sponsors two Worcester high school teams in the FIRST robotics competition created by advisory board member Dean Kamen, WPI Class of 1973, and holds an annual FIRST regional tournament on campus. The new WPI Sports and Recreation Center, which will open next fall, has dedicated "pit" space for robotics competitions.
In 2011, WPI was selected by NASA to manage the Sample Return Robot Challenge, one of the agency's Centennial Challenge prize competitions developed to help inspire innovative solutions to technical challenges in the aerospace industry. This is the first time that NASA has partnered with a university to manage a Centennial Challenge. The contest is expected to bring hundreds of competitors from industry and academia to campus next spring to compete for a prize purse of $1.5 million. In 2009, a WPI sponsored team led by Paul Ventimiglia '12, a WPI student and head of Worcester-based Paul's Robotics, won the $500,000 top prize in another centennial competition, the NASA's Regolith Excavation Challenge.